I, Claudius [1937]

This superbly acted, mordantly funny romp through 70 years or so of Roman history is one of the best-loved miniseries ever made, and deservedly so. Derek Jacobi plays Roman Emperor Claudius, who reflects in old age on his life and his remarkable family, giving us a history lesson that's unlike anything you learned in school. The story begins in 24 B.C. during the reign of Augustus Caesar, Rome's first emperor, and ends in A.D. 54 with Nero on the throne. In between, I, Claudius details the scheming, murder, madness, and lust that passed for politics in the early years of the Pax Romana. The biggest worm in the Roman apple is Augustus's wife, Livia (the superb Siân Phillips), whose single-minded pursuit of power shapes the destiny of the Empire. With a carefully planted rumor here and a poisoned fig there, she gradually maneuvers her son, Tiberius, toward the throne, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and treachery that starts Rome on its helter-skelter slide into bloody chaos. Phillips somehow makes us understand this extraordinarily wicked woman. As she ages and her carefully wrought webs begin to unravel, it becomes clear that Livia has been as thoroughly poisoned by her own ambition as her victims were by her carefully prepared meals. Further acting honors go to George Baker as Tiberius, who resists but eventually succumbs to the destiny forced upon him by his mother, and to John Hurt as a hilarious and absolutely terrifying Caligula. In one breathtakingly tense scene, the mad Emperor performs a dance in drag, then asks Claudius to critique it, perfectly capturing the horror of a world where one wrong word means death, or worse. Jacobi is the perfect Claudius, hiding his intelligence behind a crippling stammer and shuffling around the edges of events--until he finds himself pulled to the very center. His wry comments give shape to the tangled story of his family and help the audience make sense of a dauntingly complex cast of characters. I, Claudius might seem a little studio-bound to viewers brought up on more recent big-budget costume dramas, but the topnotch cast and the incident-filled plot are more than enough to hold the attention through almost 11 hours of gripping, deliciously wicked Roman follies. This boxed set also includes a documentary entitled "The Epic That Never Was," about Alexander Korda's failed attempt to film I, Claudius in 1937. The film, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton as Claudius and Merle Oberon as Messalina, was abandoned unfinished, and it remains one of Hollywood's great lost movies. --Simon Leake

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